Revisited: Tony Scott’s ‘Unstoppable’, an electrifying roller-coaster with thrills, smiles & heart.

Tony Scott’s Unstoppable is arguably one of the greatest film’s made in the 2010s. For those of us who let’s this gem slip by, or neglected it, the film is about a runaway freight train travelling at a rapid speed toward a densely populated town and the experienced engineer, Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) and the newly-hired conductor Will Colson (Chris Pine) who attempt to prevent the train from obliterating hundreds of thousands of citizens before it crashes into a toxic chemical plant and causes a disaster. This is a character story within the action/thriller genres involving an unmanned locomotive moving 100,000 tons of steel at a high velocity without brakes. This is a monster movie and the train is the beast. This is purely a David versus Goliath story. Goliath being the runaway train 777, that, resembles King Kong or Godzilla. David is the 1206 train occupied by our human heroes in Frank and Will. Unstoppable made over $170 million worldwide, and it still seems underrated in it’s discussion as one of the best films of the last decade. This movie is reminiscent of the feelings associated with riding roller coasters; it goes fast, drops and loops and twists and turns and then suddenly, it’s over, leaving you thrilled. Unstoppable is a masterful film crafted to perfection because it was all real; there was no computer-generated imagery used by any means necessary. The overall film is an electrifying ride that leaves you with thrills, smiles and warm hearts.

The opening sequence sets up the monster. Tony Scott revealed that he educated himself through interviewing real-life examples of train workers in railyards to use as inspiration for many of the characters in the story. A hallmark of Tony Scott’s style is unravelling backstories through the course of the plot in putting together the pieces of the puzzle by cross cutting the world of characters. This film is so fast paced that if makes 90 minutes feel like thirty. The cinematography by Ben Seresin employs constant movement of the camera by whooshing in and zipping out while stirring in horizontal rotations. The director of photography shoots through glass reflections of characters with light emitting diodes illuminated in the background of the control room where we meet Connie (Rosario Dawson), a woman in a man’s world who attracts her environment with self-assurance by taking command in preventing what could be a catastrophe upon a small-town by wiping out its residents and crashing into a toxic chemical plant.

The story internalizes everything the characters are feeling by communicating their emotions. Will Colson is a young conductor who gets hired merely out of nepotism. The veteran Frank Barnes and the rookie Will Colson both arrive to work with full-blown distractions in their internal psyches. Their heads are in different places and not completely focused on the job at hand as Will is distracted by his court date for his restraining order and Frank is distracted by missing his daughter’s birthday. They are both in need of reconciling relationships with loved ones. Frank learns that Will brandished a gun on an off-duty cop who he believed was having an affair with his wife, while Will learns that Frank lost his wife due to an illness. In a memorable scene in the bed of locomotive 1206 as it travels at a high speed, Frank gives will a quick-lesson in the art of pursuing a woman, even if she’s your separated wife. “You should call your wife.” Frank says. “I would, but, it’s her day off. She’s probably sleeping.” Will responds. “Don’t make excuses. Wake her up.” Frank says. “I’ve called for the past two weeks she still hasn’t called me back.” Will says. “She won’t. You gotta call her. Don’t you know how it works? You quit too easy.” Frank says. This couldn’t be closer the truth. Frank Barnes throws a look over his shoulder, to examine Will’s contemplation in a moment of phenomenal acting by Denzel Washington and perfect editing by Chris Lebenzon (Crimson Tide, Déjà Vu), the long-time collaborators of Tony Scott.  In a behind the scenes interview, Tony Scott said, “The best articulation comes from the gut. It’s all about making choices; selecting the canvas you’re working on. It’s balancing all of those different colors on the canvas in painting, which are like emotions on film.” Said Tony Scott, in relation to the choices he made during the making of Unstoppable. Tony Scott is known to have a directing style that consists of using over a dozen cameras throughout production, whereas most directors will only use one camera.

The heart of Unstoppable is in the right place throughout the full-throttle pace of intensity it exudes. “Whenever I could get a character to give me a smile, I’d use it to make the audience smile.” Said Tony Scott. Very rarely to we see a film where the characters are genuinely smiling from a pure place in the heart. Throughout this film, almost every character gives us a smile that translates into a feeling of warmth as you watch these characters intertwine throughout this masterfully crafted film. Tony Scott used tracking shots, long-lenses and tight angels on a moving train at 60 MPH, resulting in the enhancement of actor’s performance levels because they were fighting the noise, speed and vibration of the train amid their acting. Tony Scott used real audio issues they had during recording by using looping lines, bumps and grinds which added to the reality of being inside of a real train.

Unstoppable is very much a character movie with four main characters driving the story forward and smaller characters interfering and taking it in their own direction during crucial moments. The four main characters are Frank, Will, The Monster 777 Train, and the news channels all intertwining with smaller characters like Kevin Dunne as the head of the AWVR in downtown Pittsburgh in a high-rise skyscraper, Connie in the control room, Frank’s daughters () working as waitresses, Will’s wife () at home with their son. The news choppers and telecasters are an added excitement of danger and all shot on location with no computer-generated imagery. Tony Scott cast real-life news anchors because of the developed cadence in their voices because they honed the skills of speaking on live television.

The preparations that went into this film were profound. The camera throughout the film was constantly moving. Tony Scott utilized long lenses and camera cars tracking the train at high speeds in hundreds of feet of distance. The camera constantly panned left and right around Frank and Will in the cab of a moving train. The focus pullers were on-point with their instincts in terms of making the right decisions pulling focus when Frank and Will constantly moved around. Tony Scott played homage to Runaway Train (1985) with Jon Voight’s character, Manny, who got his hand trapped like Will’s foot does in between the box cars. Denzel Washington’s stunt double did real jumps on top of the train from car to car. In the climax, it’s really Chris Pine jumping off of the truck onto the train, doing his own stunt.

The musical score is phenomenal, as always, with almost every Tony Scott Picture. “Harry (Gregson-Williams) is my right arm. What I do in the editing room with Chris (Lebenzon) is we built temp scores.” Scott said. “It gives him a road map to what I’m thinking and how the music supports the picture.” Tony Scott said. “I’ve got the best team in the business. They support me creatively and emotionally.” Harry Gregson-Williams has collaborated with Tony Scott on every film he’s made since Enemy of the State (1998).

Tony Scott admitted that he cheated the geography of the ending in Unstoppable during the press conference scene, by having Frank’s daughters attend. It wouldn’t be possible for them to travel from their jobs to the site of the train in another city on the same day, after having seen them at their jobs. But it was the right payoff for the movie to have all the characters come together in the end, putting the film’s heart in the right place. The title of the film doesn’t refer to the train. The train is stoppable. It’s the heroes in Frank and Will who are Unstoppable; there is not a single thing that can prevent them from chasing down the train, latching onto it and gunning it in the opposite direction. Even if it means disobeying their superiors and losing their jobs, there is nothing that can stop Frank and Will. But, when it’s all said and done, the man that was truly unstoppable was Tony Scott. This film was the last feature of his career. Next to Revenge (1990) and Man on Fire (2004), this film just might be his masterpiece.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s